Thursday, February 19, 2009

Classicism and topiary

click photo to enlarge
The poet and atheist, Andrew Motion, has called for pupils in English schools to be taught more about the Bible. He is concerned that many students arrive at university ignorant of the text that underpins much of English literature. I have sympathy with his arguments, but I'm not sure how it can be done. In the past, and in my education, pupils learned about the Bible through the Christian worship and religious education that were features of almost all English schools. These are still, nominally, compulsory in schools, but the amount of time devoted to them has declined, and the almost exclusive focus on Christianity has been replaced by shallower study of more religions, for reasons that are certainly defensible.

Similar arguments could be advanced in support of teaching pupils about classical civilization, including Greek and Roman mythology. In fact, in a largely secular society, it is arguable that the legacy of the ancients remains almost as pervasive as that of Christianity, yet general knowledge of it is fast disappearing. But here too I struggle to think how one would achieve a wider understanding of the classical foundations of western society. Yet such knowledge was, for centuries, a cornerstone of education: the trivium and quadrivium grew out of it, and through the Great Books programme a number of American universities have more recently sought to use the seminal classical texts (along with the major works of later centuries) as the basis for their academic curriculum.

From the allusions to classical mythology that pepper poetry and prose, the Orders of Architecture and their associated ornament that grace our cities, and the etymology of a large portion of the words of the English language, the influence of Greece and Rome remains strong, and a knowledge of classical culture enriches one's day to day experience of the world. On a recent walk through the gardens of Brodsworth Hall, Yorkshire, I came across a number of classical statues set among the gardens and glades. They were largely of a general nature rather than specific, recognisable characters from the past. However, most displayed the contraposto stance derived from the ideal of beauty that descended from the ancient world, through the Renaissance and down to the nineteenth century from when these statues date. One held the mask of Janus, and another looked the model of sobriety in a toga, the badge of Roman citizenship. Such figures became traditional in English gardens from the 1700s onwards, and apart from providing focal points among the planting, served to display, on the part of of the Victorian owners, an image of learning. My photograph shows one such statue apparently passing purposefully through the topiary.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/120
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On